Russia’s test lab for cyberwar: social media ‘democratize propaganda’


In Russia’s shadow, the decades-old nightmare of hackers stopping the gears of modern society has become a reality in Ukraine, Andy Greenberg writes for Wired:

And the blackouts weren’t just isolated attacks. They were part of a digital blitzkrieg that has pummeled Ukraine for the past three years—a sustained cyber assault unlike any the world has ever seen. A hacker army has systematically undermined practically every sector of Ukraine: media, finance, transportation, military, politics, energy. Wave after wave of intrusions have deleted data, destroyed computers, and in some cases paralyzed organizations’ most basic functions.  

“You can’t really find a space in Ukraine where there hasn’t been an attack,” says Kenneth Geers, a NATO ambassador who focuses on cybersecurity.

A new hotspot analysis examines the cyber dimension of the Ukrainian conflict. A “hotspot” is understood as the cyber aspect in a particular conflict and relates to the series of actions taken in that context by states or non-state actors in cyberspace, analysts Marie Baezner and Patrice Robin write in Cyber and Information warfare in the Ukrainian conflict, a report for the Center for Security Studies (CSS). To counter such measures, they recommend:

  • Raising awareness of propaganda and misinformation;
  • Limit the dependence on foreign technology;
  • Leading by example against DDoS and website defacement;
  • Monitoring the evolution of the conflict;
  • Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in cyberspace. RTWT

Ukraine is the most advanced case of concern over Russia’s use of information warfare, where the Kremlin’s goal is “to confuse and engender apathy,” a Washington forum heard today.

Social media provide significant platforms for political engagement, especially for young people, for whom it helps shape their political identity, said researcher Philip N. Howard  from the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Lab. Russia was ahead of the game in recognizing and operationalizing this terrain, and the Kremlin developed its information warfare capacity in order to undermine a vibrant, pro-democratic domestic blogosphere before going transnational, he told a meeting at the National Democratic Institute.

The Russian government’s digital propaganda tools, including trolls and bots, were initially designed to insulate Putin’s leadership from any domestic challengers, according to the group’s Russia case study.

In Ukraine, the Russian government “created a strong network of online actors and tools such as bloggers, trolls and automated bots in order to spread misinformation online, promote official narrative and attack opponents,” the group’s Ukraine study suggests. The case of MH17 in particular “illustrates the complexity of the computational propaganda phenomenon and suggests it can have a visible influence on the international political domain,” it adds.

Civil society groups in Ukraine are struggling to respond to the threat although many have been very creative, developing their own bots, for example, Howard told the forum, chaired by Laura Jewett, NDI’s Eurasia Director.

Metastasizing media

Social media tools and techniques for shaping public opinion have been “metastasizing”, said NDI President Ken Wollack. He called for more data and analysis, a greater sense of urgency from policy-makers, and more collaboration between government, civil society and the private sector, adding that NDI has maintained a presence in Silicon Valley since 2013.

Social media such as Twitter effectively “democratize propaganda,” said Samuel Woolley, the institute’s Director of Research. Political bots are at their most potent and effective at moments of crisis, as in Brazil’s recent constitutional conflict over the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff, the 2014 presidential elections and Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 municipal elections. Policy-makers are failing to address the challenge but Germany’s heavy-handed imposition of massive fines shows how not to respond (even if Chancellor Angela Merkel is afraid of bots), he added.

With the emergence of social multimedia and artificial intelligence, the challenges are likely to become more acute, said NDI’s Scott Hubli, who suggested a fresh focus on:

  • Updating elections monitoring methodologies to take on board such issues as cognitive security;
  • Developing a community of advocates to share information and tools;
  • Political parties: they need to determine what is acceptable practice;
  • Research: moving beyond country case studies.

The fact that social media firms reportedly closed thousands of platforms prior to the recent British and French elections strongly suggests that such measures should have been taken before the US presidential election, the NDI meeting heard.

“The Russians really were engaged in a pattern of attacks against the machinery of the election, and not merely a pattern of propaganda or information warfare and selective leaking,” said Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan computer science professor. “The question is, how far did they get in that pattern of attacks, and were they successful?”

“The design and implementation of social media platforms has put several advanced democracies into a kind of democratic deficit,” Howard argued in his inaugural lecture at Oxford on June 15th:  Is Social Media Killing Democracy? Computational Propaganda, Algorithms, Automation and Public Life:

  • First, social algorithms allow fake news stories from untrustworthy sources to spread like wildfire over networks of family and friends.
  • Second, social media algorithms provide very real structure to what political scientists often call “elective affinity” or “selective exposure”. We prefer to strengthen our ties to the people and organizations we already know and like.
  • Third, technology companies, including Facebook and Twitter, have been given a moral pass on the normative obligations for democratic discourse that we hold journalists and civil society groups to.

NDI is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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